I’ve had lots of people lately ask me how to make foraging toys for their birds out of products you can find at home. It’s taken me a while to get around to doing it, but I give you now a photo blog of homemade foraging toys! *drum roll, please*
But first! To address those famous four words: “My bird won’t forage.” Yes, she will. She just hasn’t learned how yet. Even the oldest bird with the most severe behavior issues can learn to forage; it is one of the most natural behaviors that they can perform, so once you get them started it will be impossible to stop them! Start easy: cover their food bowl with a sheet of paper or a paper towel and punch holes in it so your bird can see her food. After she has gotten used to tossing aside the paper to get to the food, start putting paper over the bowl without any holes in it. Then, after she’s used to that, wrap the paper around the bowl and secure it with a piece of twine, or raffia so she has to tear through the paper to get to the food. Then put teeny-tiny portions of food onto pieces of paper and ball them up, placing them in the bowl. Then place those food balls into the bowl along with inedible objects like marbles, wooden balls, or other balled up paper that doesn’t have food inside it. You can also place some food into a paper bag while your bird is watching and then leave the open bag in the bottom of her cage. After that, you can twist the top of the bag closed. Get the picture? Making it progressively more difficult to get to the food will gradually introduce her to the concept of foraging.
Another issue I want to bring up before delving into the fun photos is also very important. It might be really hard for some people to fully realize and embrace this concept, because the opposite is such an ingrained part of our culture, but it is the truth: FOOD DOES NOT EQUAL LOVE. You are not being more loving to your bird by giving her more food. When a bird has more food than she can possibly eat in a week piled into her bowls every day, she will inevitably choose to only eat the high-fat, lower-nutrient foods, and she will be less inclined to learn how to forage. Your bird will not feel more loved; instead, she will be overweight, undernourished, bored, anxious, depressed, and hormonal.
MEETING HER TRUE NEEDS *DOES* EQUAL LOVE. Give your bird what she needs for her physical, mental, and emotional health. Give her a moderate amount of food, and let her spend each day working for her food, just like you work for yours! The amount of food that your bird needs will vary among species and individuals, but a good rule of thumb is to measure out a specific amount of food at the beginning of the day. It should be a large amount—more than she would ever finish in one day. At the end of the day, collect what is left in her bowl, gather up as much off the floor of her cage and around her cage as possible, and measure what didn’t get eaten. Subtract that from the total amount that you left in her bowl, and that should give you an idea of how much she actually eats each day. If she gets a wide variety of foods (as she should), this may mean only giving her one type of food just for one day so that it’s easier to measure—preferably the food that she likes most. Whatever she eats in a day – let’s say, for a theoretical bird which we shall name Daisy, that’s 4 tablespoons – you want to offer about 125% of that as her daily portion (to allow for some waste, or for extra calories on days when she’s more active or needs more calories for other reasons)—which for Daisy would be 5 tablespoons. You will find that she will waste much less of the food, expand her palate to enjoy many different kinds of foods that she previously would never have touched, and will be much more enthusiastic about learning to forage!
So, with that in mind, on to cheap and easy foraging ideas!
First I’ll show you some foraging toys that I had already made but had not been destroyed by my birds yet.
Never underestimate the useability of old, used up toys. As long as it doesn’t have any rusty metal, soiled porous materials, or dangerous, sharp edges, an old toy that your bird has thoroughly enjoyed can often times be recycled. The toy in the photo on the left used to be the preening toy in the photo on the right until my female eclectus, Cah’ya, destroyed every last fiber. Instead of throwing it out, I made it a new preening toy with exciting foraging capabilities! I simply tore up strips of some old pajamas (washed in bird-safe Chlorhexidine, rather than laundry detergent), knotted them around a piece of raffia, and tied the raffia through the hole where the old rope used to be fastened. Then, I tied some raw organic almonds and pistachios, still in the shell, into some of the cloth strips. Not only can Cah’ya preen with it now, she can also root around for some tasty nuts!
This boring plastic chain was inexplicably attached to one of my playgyms when I got it. I thought about just removing it, but decided instead to turn it into an exciting new foraging toy. I simply put small amount of food into pieces of napkin paper, balled the papers up, then tied one to each link of the chain with raffia. It took me less than five minutes to make a toy that provided hours of entertainment to my bird and can be used over and over again.
(Also note the toy on the right side of the picture. It is a $3 infant toy that I got, along with many others, at a local grocery store. These toys are not suitable for macaws, cockatoos, and even some amazons, because they are more like to chew up the plastic and could ingest it, but most other species of parrots really enjoy these toys for their moveable parts and the mental challenges they provide. Some of the toys have buttons that, when pushed, flash lights, play songs, or say words and phrases. These toys are especially useful, as they are interactive and can teach birds to sing or speak. And the most expensive one I’ve found so far is $6, which is MUCH cheaper than most comparable bird toys. This isn’t really foraging-related, but I thought it might be helpful nonetheless.)
If you know a handy kind of guy who has tools in his garage or workshed, put him to good use! You can usually get scraps of (make sure it’s untreated!) wood at a lumber yard or hardware store for cheap or free, and then turn it into all kinds of fun for your birds. Drilling small holes into, but not through, a big block of wood like the one in the picture above makes a great foraging toy. Just stuff the holes with nuts or pellets and your birds will spend hours trying to dig them all out.
Another toy idea that isn’t exactly foraging but is useful nonetheless for those bigger birds who like to destroy wood and/or disassemble their cages: drill multiple holes all the way through a piece of (again, untreated) 2×4 and then put screws or bolts through the holes and fasten them to the wood with washers and wingnuts. Your bird will have a blast trying to unscrew the bolts and push them out of the wood, and then will reduce the 2×4 to splinters! (Edit: Kitt reminded me in her wonderful comment below to mention that any and all hardware you use for your bird toys should be marine grade stainless steel. Anything with zinc, lead, or nickel will cause heavy metal toxicosis, which can be fatal.)
It’s difficult to tell from this photo (hey, I never said I was a photographer), but this is one fourth of a Starbucks drink holder. They use recycled paper (NEVER use styrofoam, plastic, or dyed containers), so instead of throwing it away, I decided to use it. I cut it into fourths, shoved a piece of cardboard into the bottom of each one so that the food wouldn’t fall through the holes, then for good measure I tied a piece of old fabric to the outside to further prevent the food from falling out. Then I tied raffia all the way around the cup a few times so that the food was a little harder to reach and hung these from varying lengths of raffia all over the playgyms. (The food, in case you’re wondering, is a mixture of Avian Naturals, Phoenix UnPellet, red rooibos tea, chamomile, hibiscus, star anise, and dried goji berries, pomegranate, and blueberries.)
***WORD OF WARNING*** When using raffia to hang your foraging toys, ALWAYS use only ONE STRAND to hang the toy. If you use two or more strands, your bird can get caught between the strands by the neck and hang herself. It doesn’t happen often, but it has happened!
Anyway, as you can see in the photos below, the birds either have to reach for them, as Bayu is doing on the left, or lift them up by the string of raffia and hold the toy while they eat the food. Cah’ya, pictured on the right, was doing that before I pulled out my camera, but then she got camera shy and just stood there. But I’m still including the picture because you can imagine how she would pull it up.
Now, finally, on to the toys with the step-by-step instructions! First, the building blocks of almost every foraging toy I make:
This gives you an idea of how small the portions are in each paper treat ball. A single almond in the shell, one nutriberry, a teaspoon of Birdelicious or Avian Naturals…a little food goes a long way in keeping foraging fun and interesting for your bird. In this photo I use recycled packing paper and a strip of napkin paper, but any kind of bird-safe paper will do.
People have also asked me, “Why put the food in the paper balls?” Well, in addition to making the food more challenging to get to, in a way it actually makes it less frustrating for the bird as well. If you just put the food straight into a toy, a lot of it tends to get spilled. When wrapped in a ball, your bird can actually grab the paper ball and hold it, and then either open it or chew a hole in it and take pieces of food out in her own good time. Much less is spilled that way, and she hasn’t just gone through all the work of foraging only to have it spilled on the floor!
But while we’re on the topic of food being spilled on the floor, let’s take a moment to talk about ground foraging. I will never understand why grates get placed in the bottom of bird cages. They say it’s so that the birds won’t come into contact with their feces, but are you kidding? Grates get full of bird poop and are difficult to clean. Plus, birds come into contact with their feces on the cage bars, perches, toys… The key to sanitation isn’t yet another surface to have to clean; it’s merely keeping the surfaces that are already there cleaned on a regular basis. I remove the grates from all my cages and let my birds forage on the ground. It provides another method of foraging, and that way when they inevitably spill some of the foraged food, it is not lost to them forever; they simply have to go forage a little more to get to it. Whether or not you decide to do this is your choice, but don’t keep a grate simply because you’ve been told that that’s what you have to do.
Ok, enough preambles already, right? Lets get to the toys!
We’ll start with an easy toy:
You can’t tell in this picture, but I tied these two paper towel tubes together with a piece of raffia and stuffed a couple of paper treat balls way down into the center of them. There is regular, un-treat-filled paper stuffed in either side to fill up the tube, and then I stuck the tubes into the Get-A-Grip to immobilize it a little bit. My birds really have to chew and unstuff this toy to get to the treats, but they have learned from experience that they’re in there! (Edit: Again, Kitt reminded me to point out that any paper towel or toilet paper holders should not have the glue still on them, as the glue is not bird safe. You will notice that none of the ones in any of my pictures have the strips of glue; this is because they are easily removed by simply peeling them off. Just make sure you do it!)
Next, making paper bags more interesting after you’ve gotten your bird used to the concept of the food being in the paper bag:
A lot of these paper balls are empty; only about four have food inside.
Instead of just filling the bag, I tie it about half way up and make a second stuffed section.
Again, most of the paper balls are empty.
The finished product has two tiers of foraging opportunities, giving your bird more of a challenge, and consequentially more treats to find! The first few times you make this toy, you might want to tear a hole in the top and bottom of the bag and stick a treat into the hole so that your bird gets the idea that she has to dig into it to find food.
You can also do a lot with UNWAXED (make absolutely sure they are wax free!) paper cups:
First, I impale six paper cups onto the blade of my scissors.
Then I run a piece of raffia through all six cups and tie a wooden bead to the bottom so they will stay on the raffia.
I put a paper treat ball in each cup, then tie another wooden bead at the top cup so that the cups can’t fully come apart–that way my birds will have to tear through the cups to get to the treat balls.
Voila! Stack’o’cups extraordinaire!
Here’s another one you can do with cups:
Get two paper cups, make holes in the bottom of each cup, and string raffia through them so that they are facing each other…
…stuff each cup with paper treat balls…
…and stick one of the cups into the other! Simply tie the two raffia ends together, making sure one end is long enough to hang from the top of the cage or playstand.
And here’s another easy one, using both a paper cup and a toilet paper roll:
Thread raffia through holes in the top of the cup and then through holes in the top of the toilet paper roll, then stuff the TP roll with paper treat balls and inedible stuff. In this batch, I also shoved some shredders in there for some added fun.
You can also just hang a TP roll by itself, like this:
I put the paper treat ball (or two) in the center and then stuff the outsides with empty paper, so that the birds have to dig to get to the good stuff.
You can also recycle To-Go boxes, as long as they are made from recycled paper and not from styrofoam.
First, I cut each half of the To-Go box in quarters (if the bottom half is soiled with grease or salt from the food in it, I will not use it for the birds).
Then, I punch holes that are somewhat evenly spaced around the edges of the box.
Then I “sew” the two sides together with raffia.
Then I line the box with paper and stuff it with paper treat balls and empty paper balls.
And that’s that! A little foraging purse, easy as pie!
Remember how I used that old preening toy of Cah’ya’s to make a new preening/foraging toy for her? Well…
I didn’t need the old toy to make a comparable one for Bayu. I just tied strips of shredded fabric to a string of raffia, tied some nuts and treats into a few of the strips, then tied the raffia together into a small loop. Same toy, just without the plastic bell on top!
Reducing paper waste in your house and finding a use for items that used to go straight in the trash is great! It gives a whole new meaning to “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” But you can also help your vet reduce waste as well!
These are syringe cases. Sterile syringes come sealed in these things, and after the seal on the caps is broken and the syringes are removed, they end up in the trash…
…UNLESS you can turn them into foraging toys!
You can either hang them by themselves…
…OR you can stuff them, along with paper, into a TP roll or a paper cup to add an extra challenge. Most birds do need to be shown how to unscrew the caps, and I even left the caps only partially on the case for the first few times before gradually pushing it farther and farther onto the case. Now, my birds grip those suckers and pry those caps off like nobody’s business, but it definitely does take practice. I should again caution you, though: be careful with the bigger birds like macaws and cockatoos with the plastic. Make sure that they don’t chew it up, especially not if they’re going to ingest it!
Now is as good a time as any to remind everyone that it is vital that you watch your pet carefully with any new toy. Every bird is going to interact with their toys differently, and until you know how they are going to play with something, make sure they are being safe. Most of these toys are totally harmless, but even with them, if a bird decides to try to EAT cardboard or paper, she could be in grave danger. And, the necessary disclaimer: these are just ideas that I use with my birds. I cannot be held responsible if an accident occurs with your bird when you make your own foraging toys at home.
Moving along: these are just a few ideas of foraging toys that you can make, fairly quickly and easily, for next to nothing. The sky is the limit. Some other ideas that I have used in the past but didn’t make this time around:
* Finger traps – You can buy them in big packages and either incorporate them into any of the products above, or just simply stuff some foods into one and hang it solo. These are especially great for smaller birds, like budgies, ‘tiels, and parrotlets, because it isn’t as difficult for them to chew through the palm leaf as cardboard or paper cups.
* Tamale wrappers/lettuce/kale – Place some food in the center of the wrapper or leaf and roll it up into a miniature birdie-burrito. Tie some raffia around either end, and you have a foraging toy! Tamale wrappers are also great for stuffing some of the acrylic foraging toys as well.
* Straws – grab a bundle of them, tie them together with a zip tie, and put a tiny piece of food – e.g. pine nut, sunflower seed, little cluster of millet, pea, dried berry or piece of fruit, etc. – in a few of the ends. This is another great one for smaller birds. Medium to large birds have a tendency to try to chew up the straw, although my ekkies never have.
* Cardboard boxes – cut squares and “sew” them together on three ends with raffia (as in the To-Go box above), then stuff pieces of food in between the layers. This is a great one for the bigger birds like ‘caws and ‘toos because they can really gnaw on that cardboard.
* Hanging fruit – stab a piece of fruit, run some raffia through it, and hang it from the top of the cage or playgym. They will have to eat the fruit while it dangles, just like they would in the wild.
* Threading veggies – weave leaf veggies, green beans, and strips of peppers between the cage bars so they have to work to get them out.
* Coffee filters – This is another one that Kitt reminded me of that I forgot to mention before. You can also make foraging toys out of coffee filters by simply balling them up with a little food inside and hanging them like that, or coming up with your own fun version. One thing that I did with coffee filters for my ‘tiels and lovebirds in high school – before I even knew about the concept of foraging toys – was to stack coffee filters on top of each other (similar to the paper cup idea) and put some of their pellets and seeds in between each layer. I did this because I noticed how much all our birds loved to stick their heads into things: our mouths (we did our best not to let them, but that sure didn’t stop them from trying on a regular basis), sofa cushions, flowers, curtains…they just really liked probing into small spaces. The coffee filter layers allowed them to probe between the layers for their food instead of obsessing over trying to pick our teeth!
These are just a few ideas, but now that you have a good idea of what is possible, be creative and explore different toy ideas yourself! And when you come up with some cool new foraging toys, please let me know. I’m always trying to come up with new and more challenging toys for my fids.
And please, don’t be disheartened by the thought of having to make toys for the rest of your life. It really isn’t as much work as it seems. It took me four hours to make all the toys in this bag –
– which is enough to last me about a month. (Oh! And that blue and white thing on top is a finger trap that I was talking about earlier.) So, really, once a month you just pop in a few movies and sit down and make toys. It’s actually kind of fun. And if you have family members to help, it takes even less time and provides some family bonding time as well. Don’t think of it as work; realize that it’s enriching for everyone—including you!
For more ideas about avian enrichment and foraging, check out the following: